Two Suitcases: an excerpt


Powidltascherl

Alsergrund
December 31, 1934

Trude’s grandfather died on the last day of 1934. A fever took him, or perhaps it was pneumonia. He wouldn’t let Helene or Trude go for the doctor. “My time has come,” he told them that morning when, for a short time, he had the strength and clarity to speak. “Don’t spend good money dragging things out. Just sit with me.”

Trude brought another cool washcloth from where it was hanging on the sill of the slightly open window, and put it on his burning forehead. He hadn’t eaten for three days, and stopped taking liquids the night before.

Helene sat at the table writing notes to their relatives inviting them to come to say good-by. He might have another few days, she wrote. He’s a strong man.

In the early afternoon, two of Herr Berger’s friends from the coffee house stopped in. Trude went over earlier to tell them why her grandfather hadn’t been around for the last few days. A short time later a cousin from the next district brought a pot of soup.

“He’s not eating, Grete,” Helene told her.

“It’s for you and Trude, Helene. You’ll go on living, no?”

“It’s very kind of you to think of us, Tante Grete,” said Trude.

Grete grunted and pulled her sweater around herself more tightly. “Why on earth is that window open? Are you both crazy? You’re letting him die!”

“Papa wants it open,” Helene said.

“And you think he’s in the right frame of mind to give advice?” Grete walked over to the window and closed it firmly.

“Grete!” came a voice from under the blankets on the settee. “Leave that window alone!

“Ach, Josef!’ cried Grete. “You’re still with us? Good! I have some messages for you to give to our family on the other side.” She opened the window just a little.

“There is no other side, Grete, but tell me anyway.” Herr Berger sounded infinitely weary. He closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until Grete was gone.

The sun was low in the sky when he woke once more.

“Close the window, Helene,” he said.

Alsergrund
January 12, 1935

“And five hundred grams of flour,” Trude said to the grocer’s wife. She looked at the small glass bottle of milk, the six eggs, the hundred grams of walnuts, and the hundred grams of butter already on the counter, and added up how much it would cost. “No,” she said. “Make that four hundred grams of flour. We have a little at home.”

“What are you making?” asked the grocer’s wife.

“Powidltascherl. The family is coming. You heard that my grandfather died? It was his favorite.”

“Oh, yes! So suddenly!”

“It was fast. He was fine, he caught a cold, and then he was gone. He was seventy-three, you know.”

“A good age. He had a long life. How many people are coming to you?”

“Well, the family from Tyrol, and maybe his cousins from Bavaria. And everyone from here. Maybe twelve or fifteen in all?”

“Then you’ll need more ingredients than this for the powidltascherl! Do you have the powidl?”

“I have two jars. It should be enough.”

“But you won’t have enough dough for that much powidl.” She was already weighing out more flour. “Here, I’m giving you more eggs, too. You have enough sugar? Let me give you some anyway.” The counter was filling with goods.

“No, no, Frau Steinmann! I can’t afford this much and I can’t add to our bill! It’s already late!”

“Trude! You aren’t paying for any of this! I’m giving it to you so you can remember Josef properly.”

“Oh, Frau Steinmann, you mustn’t. What will I tell my mother when I bring home so much food?”

“You tell her it’s my gift! We went to school together, your mother and I. Your family has come here for too many years to count. Take it! Open your bag and let me put these things in.”

Trude opened her bag. Frau Steinmann was right. One recipe would never feed so many people. “You’re very kind. Some day I’ll figure out a way to return the favor,” she said as she went back out into the cold.

Two hours later, the apartment was so packed with family and friends that people could barely move.

“Excuse me, Tante Anna,” Trude said as she pushed her way to the table with another plate of powidltascherl. She’d been able to make four recipes with the two jars of powidl and the ingredients Frau Steinmann gave her. Before returning to the kitchen, she popped another of the crispy plum turnovers into her mouth. It was her third. She stood still for a minute to savor the sweet and remember her grandfather. The taste of the powidl brought tears to her eyes. She ate the tascherl very slowly.

Behind her, she heard one of the cousins from Bavaria talking to Grete.

“All the Jews in our village are gone,” he was saying. “Every one.” Trude stayed where she was, perfectly still, listening. The cousin continued, “Could be they’re in hiding somewhere.”

“What are they hiding from?” asked Anna. “The police? Their neighbors?”

“Both. It’s very bad for the Jews all over Germany now. They can’t work, the children can’t go to school, what should they do? I imagine they went to the larger cities where maybe they can get work doing the things nobody else wants to do.” He reached over to the table and took two more powidltascherl. “If you ask me, that’s what they should be doing. That’s what they should have been doing all along. Making themselves useful without taking our jobs.”

Oh god, thought Trude. She hoped Litzi and Theresa wouldn’t be coming. What would she say to them?

“We’re much better off without the Jews,” the cousin continued. “The bank is in local hands now, and although there is only one left, we have a doctor we can trust.”

“The Jewish doctor wasn’t trustworthy?” asked Anna.

“Doctors! There were two. To be honest, I never had a problem with them, Herr Frankel and Herr Goldmann, but you hear stories.”

Deciding she’d heard enough, Trude looked up, and there was Fritz, right across the room from her, standing hesitantly near the door. He looked thin and haggard. Trude watched him make his way to where her mother was accepting condolences and wait his turn to speak to her. He didn’t look around the room.

She glanced at the plate of powidltascherl. More than half were still there.

“Excuse me, Tante Anna,” she said again, this time making her way to where Fritz stood.

“Trude!” a voice called out. It was Theresa, the cousin she grew up with, the cousin she hadn’t seen in more than two years, the cousin whose wedding she missed because of the civil war, the one who never wrote back after Trude told her that Fritz and she were planning to travel together, and to marry someday.

“Theresa!” Trude exclaimed as they hugged. “How wonderful to see you!” and it was. All their differences fell away in that hug. The two young women forgot what was going on around them, so deep in conversation were they, catching up, apologizing, falling into their old familiar way of being together.

It was ten minutes before Trude remembered that she was in charge of the powidltascherl, and the two of them went into the kitchen to prepare another batch. It was half an hour before she remembered Fritz. He was gone by then.

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